The Complicated Grammar Rule You Know Without Knowing

Certain rules of grammar are easy to articulate and uphold. Taking on “commandment” status, some elements of the English language get drilled into our heads at an early age: don’t split infinitives, avoid starting a sentence with a conjunction, and don’t get caught drawing pictures of your teacher during 5th grade English class. Violation of any of these rules will, at best, make you sound uneducated. At worst, they earn you a trip to a very cross-looking principal and a snarkily-worded letter to your mother.

Those who learn English as a second language often encounter a principle of sentence structure that is quite complicated to memorize. Because of its complexity, ESL students often express astonishment that those who grew up speaking the language aren’t even aware the rule exists. It is the rule that governs the order in which adjectives should be listed.

Suppose, for example, you want to describe a building. It is the location of the Federal Department of Red Tape’s central office. It is brown, constructed of brick, and is triangular. Most people think it looks a bit odd. It is rather large and was constructed a long time ago.

If you wanted to describe the building in one sentence, does it matter what order you put the adjectives office, brown, brick, triangular, odd, large, and old? How does it sound to your ears to when you hear about the office, brown, brick, triangular, odd, large, old building? Not quite right, is it? If we shuffle the same adjectives around, however, and describe the odd, large, triangular, brown, brick, office building, it isn’t as offensive. Try switching any two of those adjectives and notice how weird it seems. A brown brick building should be the same as a brick brown building, but you would never describe it that way, would you?

There is a hierarchy when using more than one adjective before a noun. They are ranked accordingly:

  1. opinion
  2. size
  3. age
  4. shape
  5. color
  6. origin
  7. material
  8. purpose

You will find this rule applied with near-uniform consistency wherever you look. Consider the following, and you will see that the same words don’t sound the same:

  • Little Green Men
  • My Big Fat Greek Wedding
  • Silly Old Bear
  • Wise Old Hen
  • Crazy Old Cat Lady
  • Black Plastic Umbrella
  • Small Shiny Water Bottle
  • Adorable Little Black Puppy
  • Dirty Old Man
  • Green Little Men
  • My Greek Fat Big Wedding
  • Old Silly Bear
  • Old Wise Hen
  • Old Crazy Cat Lady
  • Plastic Black Umbrella
  • Shiny Small Water Bottle
  • Black Adorable Little Puppy
  • Old Dirty Man

Notice how easily you apply the rule without needing to stop and think about the hierarchy of the eight types of adjectives. In all likelihood, you weren’t even aware the rule existed. If you had been asked to explain why you listed the adjectives in that order, you would have been unable to explain it.

Applying this rule may bring comfort to you, but it was quite distressing for one of the greatest authors of all time. It nearly prevented The Lord of the Rings from seeing the light of day, as we discussed in this article.

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